Businesses concerned after Internet cafe raids

By Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Jacksonville is drawing fire from a special task force aimed at enforcing anti-gambling laws in the state, and many of the Internet cafes around town are now closed.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Thursday announced raids on businesses in five counties.

A local lawmaker says he believes FDLE did the right thing.

"There was a perception there wouldn't be enforcement in Jacksonville," said Nicholas Cox, statewide prosecutor for the Illegal Gaming Task Force. "I don't know how, but I completely disagree with it, because it's illegal, and we're going to enforce state law."

Vegas Fun Zone on Blanding at Wilson boulevards claims it's been open for 10 years in the community, but it has taken the precaution of closing to ask for legal help.

"Jacksonville, as I've learned, there's more in Jacksonville than anywhere else," Cox said. "So a lot of what we've done today is focused on Jacksonville."

Cox and his task force of state law enforcement announced enforcement actions taken against two primary suspects, one with a Neptune Beach address -- Pete Miller.

Miller has spoken in the past, claiming his cybercafes operate within the law.

That's not what investigators believe.

"It's Internet time," Cox said. "There's even a new way of selling a pair of jeans, $19 jeans for $150. It's a sham product, regardless how they're doing it now. It's still a sham product."

Pete's Retreat 6 is one of Miller's storefronts owned in Jacksonville and the surrounding areas. It's closed because of FDLE investigation and raids Thursday.

Now people in similar businesses said they're frustrated and concerned, and many have closed voluntarily, wanting to make sure they're not subject to similar raids.

"You'd have thought after last year these people would realize somebody's going to check on you sooner or later, and they'll find out if the games are skill or chance," said State Sen. John Thrasher, who helped rewrite the rules on gaming last year.

As for the business owners who have concerns, "They'll have the right to defend and make their case on that. But again, I think these folks have tried to skirt the law," Thrasher said. "That's first and foremost. They tried to get right on the edge of it, thinking they're on the side they could operate legally. But truth be told, I don't think you can skirt the law when it comes to these kinds of games. Either they're games of chance or games of skill."

While the Legislature changed some rules concerning Internet cafes and video gaming last year, the leader of the task force says what it has uncovered in the Pete's Retreat locations would have been illegal before and after those changes.

In February, Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford said he did not think local Internet cafes were operating illegally.

In a phone interview Friday, Rutherford clarified that, saying, "What I said was, I'm not going to talk about an active investigation, but if we find one, if they're illegal, we shut them down. We're not going to tell them they're operating legally. That's not my job. My job is putting them in jail if they're operating illegally."

Thrasher believes the task force probably sent undercover investigators into the cafes to determine if the games were of skill or chance.

Thrasher said more than once that shutting down the cafes in violation was the right thing to do.

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